Is there a cure for drug company greed?

Drug companies are cashing in on Americans' bioterrorism fears.

Published November 7, 2001 6:24PM (EST)

To hear the drug companies tell it, in this time of national crisis, they've been as patriotic as Patrick Henry, as generous as Andrew Carnegie, and as selfless as Mother Teresa.

Which would be true if Patrick Henry had proclaimed, "Give me liberty or give me profits!" Mother Teresa had enlisted Calcutta's lepers as lobbyists, and Andrew Carnegie had spent millions on self-aggrandizing full-page ads.

During a slew of recent high-level meetings with the likes of homeland security czar Tom Ridge, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, and even the president himself, the pharmaceutical industry's chief executives have been eagerly exploiting the current crisis to make their lifelong legislative dreams come true: lower drug approval standards, less oversight, less regulation, and immunity from lawsuits.

This rancid lobbying campaign is being sweetened with the cherry-flavored rhetoric of munificent patriotism. Most inventively Orwellian were the comments of Alan Homer, head of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, the drug industry's trade group. "This is not about profits," he said. "It is not about patents. It is about making sure we have an adequate supply of medicines available to the American people."

Peter Dolan, chief executive of Bristol-Meyers, proudly claimed: "We are part of the nation's defense system. As an industry, there is a real opportunity for us to give our resources in a time of great need." Dolan must be using a different dictionary, because mine defines "giving" as "making a present of" -- not "figuring out a way to make a ton of money while taking advantage of the nation's bioterrorism fears."

Instead of listening to what the drug companies say, we need to look at what they do. Take the deal that Bayer cut with Thompson to provide Cipro to the government at the special price of 95 cents a pill, marked down from its previous special price of $1.77. It sounds good until you realize that it costs Bayer about 20 cents to make a Cipro pill, which means that the company will still be making hundreds of millions of dollars off the anthrax attacks -- to say nothing of the priceless free publicity the rush on Cipro has brought. "There will be so much trust," predicted Bayer CEO Helge Wehmeier. "We'll benefit greatly from this." I'm sure America's anthrax victims will be very happy to hear that.

Give the drug companies credit for admirable consistency, though. In AIDS-ravaged sub-Saharan Africa, the drug companies fought tooth and nail for years to keep low-cost generic versions of their AIDS drugs off the market, thus dooming millions in their "time of great need."

And these are the people we're supposed to have "so much trust" in during a crisis? At this very moment, the Federal Trade Commission is investigating charges that Bayer conspired to keep a low cost generic version of Cipro off the market by illegally paying three of its competitors a total of $200 million.

Think of that: at the same time the public is worrying whether there is enough of the drug available, Bayer is actually paying other companies hundreds of millions of dollars not to produce it. And the fact that the company had a spare $200 million sitting around for corporate payola proves how insanely lucrative the drug business is.

We can't even trust the drug companies on the safety of their products. Just this summer, Bayer was forced to pull their best selling drug, Baycol, off the market after it had been tied to 52 deaths -- and hundreds of severe reactions -- in this country alone.

So when Wehmeier promises us that "everyone in America can be assured that there is and there always will be enough Cipro on hand," I, for one, do not feel assured. Unfortunately, our elected watchdogs in Washington have no more immunity to the drug companies' lobbyists than they do to smallpox.

The pharmaceutical industry, which has more lobbyists on its payroll than Congress has members, spent a whopping $177 million on lobbying in 1999 and 2000. And more than half of the drug industry's 625 registered lobbyists are either former members of Congress or former Hill staffers and government employees.

Washington's revolving door, of course, spins both ways. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was formerly CEO of drug giant G.D. Searle, and White House budget director Mitch Daniels was a senior vice-president at Eli Lilly.

The pair's current colleagues seem to have swallowed some sort of gullibility pill. Ridge said he was "grateful" for the drug companies' strings-attached offers of help, while Thompson called the offers "generous."

This is a very bad sign indeed. Our government backed the drug companies when they allowed business considerations to take priority while millions died in Africa. Now that the suffering has hit closer to home, and the American people face a future potentially laced with anthrax, smallpox and God knows what else, we simply cannot allow those in charge of our health and safety to abandon the public interest in favor of moneyed special interests.

President Bush is right when he reiterates that America's new war is being fought on two fronts, foreign and domestic. But what he doesn't say is that the domestic front isn't just about fighting those plotting to spread disease and sickness. It's also about fighting those plotting to place profits ahead of our lives.

By Arianna Huffington

Arianna Huffington is a nationally syndicated columnist, the co-host of the National Public Radio program "Left, Right, and Center," and the author of 10 books. Her latest is "Fanatics and Fools: The Game Plan for Winning Back America."

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